We travel to the new

Ed Smith
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I haven’t seen the Blue Puttees or the Highlanders, yet.

That’s not quite true. Someone sent me by email some shots of the exteriors and interiors of these vessels. Inside, they looked like they were designed for a Donald Trump penthouse.

I don’t know what we’ll be sailing on in 2012, but sure as hell in 2013, assuming we’re all still here, we’ll be zipping across the Gulf in intercontinental marine ferries capable of carrying 10,000 passengers and 3,000 cars, and making the trip in 35 minutes.

The interesting thing is that we’ll still need two of whatever it is making two trips a day and we’ll still have backups in Glace Bay and lineups in Rose Blanche — that’s where the new terminals will be.

Sound far-fetched? My first trip to the mainland with my parents was on a vessel that took three or four cars lashed to the hatches. It made one trip a day. Now we’re talking 1,000 passengers and 500 vehicles on each of those two vessels running practically full out. So, what do you think is just around the corner?

At the same time, come to think of it, we were crossing the Exploits River on a raft attached to a steel cable and lashed to a motorboat for power. That contraption took, if memory serves me right, two cars and swung down the river almost to Gander Bay when the cable stretched to its maximum flexibility.

It took a while to get two — or it might have been four — cars across to the other side. I can’t even begin to estimate how many vehicles cross the bridge today in that same length of time.

And while I’m at it, at one point we put our car on a freight train in Clarenville and got off at Gambo. Sometime later, we had to take a no-masted schooner from Charlottetown, B.B., to Bunyan’s Cove and pick up the road to the rest of the East Coast from there.

Golden Age

As far as I’m concerned, the Golden Age of travel between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia was during the heyday of the William Carson.

She was like nothing we had ever seen before on the Gulf run. She was big and beautiful and most wonderfully appointed. When we poor Newfoundlanders first set foot on her, we thought we had landed in the lap of luxury.

So what if the cooks in the cafeteria were bare-armed and hairier than your average great ape. So what if the meat was often green, the coffee bitter, the tea cold and the milk sour. This, my son, was the William Carson and nothing afloat could touch her!

A friend described a trip on the Carson as a cultural experience, and indeed it was. Few people bothered with the unnecessary expense of a stateroom, even if one had been available.

Some people just stretched out on the seats. There were no armrests between them to interfere with your rest.

Marine Atlantic, by another name, believed in the rights of the individual back then, and understood the needs of the common man and the common woman. So, if you had a sleeping bag but couldn’t find a seat, you simply spread out the bag on the nearest available floor space and settled in for the night.

It behooved you to stay out of the more travelled spaces so as to avoid a kick in the stomach or a boot to the head. This wouldn’t be intentional, mind you, as in more recent times, but at 3 a.m. in a rolling sea, people didn’t always have complete control over their feet.

If you were a mother travelling on her own with two toddlers, you were never alone. If one decided to use the occasion to scream mightily, as one invariably did, and the other one got seasick, as the other one invariably did, it would not be unusual for some kindly woman to come to your aid, even at 3 a.m.

“Here, my dear. Let me take this little one for a little walk while you take care of the other little one.”

Off she’d go with your child perched in her arms and smiling happily. It would never occur to you that a stranger had just walked off with one of your children. This was, after all, the Newfoundland ferry. This was the William Carson, where people stretched out on the seats and slept on the floors and gave each other a hand when it was needed.

Sophisticated travellers

If you’re eating at the moment, don’t read this next bit.

Admittedly, travellers on the Carson weren’t quite as sophisticated as they are now. Some of you may remember the little white napkin affairs that hung over the backs of the seats. I assume they were there to soak up the oil off the heads of those who leaned back against them. All hair gets greasy while travelling.

I have observed, on occasion, travellers leaning forward and using those little white napkins to blow their noses.

In any culture, one has to take the good with the bad. No culture is all pure and pristine. Few cultures, just the same, are as bad as that. Like the transportation systems, we’ve come a long way, baby!

The Blue Puttees and the Highlanders will be a long way removed from the William Carson. As you probably know, the Carson met her end in the most honourable way possible. She went to the bottom in the ice off Labrador without loss of a single life.

But I doubt that these new vessels will attract the kind of folklore and love-hate relationship that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians shared with that wonderful old ship. She reflected our times, both good and bad, as faithfully as one could ever wish.

From the Carson to the new guys on the block, bon voyage!

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.  His e-mail address is   edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Organizations: Golden Age, Marine Atlantic

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Glace Bay, Rose Blanche Exploits River Gander Bay Clarenville Charlottetown East Coast Nova Scotia Springdale

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